Margot Robbie

Mary Queen of Scots

18/01/19

The Tudors are common parlance Chez B&B these days; since downloading the Six The Musical soundtrack, we’ve barely listened to anything else. Of course, this new film is a very different beast, but it does share a few key players, and our recently-discovered interest in the period makes us extra keen to see what’s on offer here.

What Mary Queen Of Scots has in common with Six is its telling of ‘herstory,’ with female experiences placed firmly and unapologetically in the spotlight. The perspectives belong to the women. Not just because they’re the main characters, but because the directors (Josie Rourke and Lucy Moss respectively) are women too, and so everything is reflected through this – sadly still unusual – prism.

Saoirse Ronan is Mary, and she’s every bit as impressive as you’d expect this extraordinary young actor to be. She’s strong and commanding, warm and vulnerable: the heart and heroine of this tale. Margot Robbie, as Mary’s English cousin and counterpart, has arguably the harder role: Elizabeth is less likeable, and burdened with the fact that (spoiler alert!) she has Mary imprisoned and then killed. But Robbie is more than equal to the task, imbuing the English queen with both formidable resolve and an unexpected frailty. The parallels between the two women – and the tragedy that they can not be allies – are central to the film.

The brutality of the era is clearly evoked, with bloody murders a-plenty. Thankfully, there are no extended battle sequences here (I’m a little weary of them); instead, the skirmishes are short and definitive, the armies as small as I suppose they really must have been, the power-grabs and politicking as baffling and depressing as they remain to this day.

The men might be peripheral, but they’re played with panache by such stalwarts as David Tennant (virtually unidentifable as John Knox, with his strange hat and straggly beard), Jack Lowden (as the loathsome, weak-willed Henry Darley) and Guy Pearce (playing William Cecil, chief advisor to his Neighbours stablemate, Robbie). The structural power bias is evident in the way these men succeed in out-manouevring even the redoubtable Mary, and in Elizabeth’s cannier recognition that the only way she can retain her position is by disavowing her gender, and surrendering her happiness.

A fascinating film, and – if the sold-out screening we’re at is anything to go by – one that is likely to do well. Mind you, we are in Edinburgh. And Mary is the Queen of Scots.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

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Film Bouquets 2018

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

2018 has yielded a lot of interesting films, and it’s been hard to choose which most deserve Bouquets. Still, we’ve managed it, and here – in order of viewing – are those that made the cut.

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Alexander Payne’s brilliant satire had its detractors, mostly people who had expected a knockabout comedy –  but we thought it was perfectly judged and beautifully played by Matt Damon and Hong Chau.

Coco

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A dazzling, inventive and sometimes surreal love letter to Mexico, this Pixar animation got everything absolutely right, from the stunning artwork to the vibrant musical score. In a word, ravishing.

The Shape of Water

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Guillermo del Toro’s spellbinding fantasy chronicled the most unlikely love affair possible with great aplomb. Endlessly stylish, bursting with creativity, it also featured a wonderful performance from Sally Hawkins.

Lady Bird

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This semi-autobiographical story featured Saoirse Ronan as a self-centred teenager, endlessly at war with her harassed mother (Laurie Metcalfe). Scathingly funny but at times heart-rending, this was an assured directorial debut from Greta Gerwig.

I, Tonya

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Imagine Good Fellas on ice skates and you’ll just about have the measure of this stunning biopic of ice skater Tonya Harding, built around an incandescent performance from Margot Robbie, and featuring a soundtrack to die for.

A Quiet Place

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This film had audiences around the world too self-conscious to unwrap a sweet or slurp their cola. Written and directed by John Kransinski and starring Emily Blunt, it was one of the most original horror films in a very long time – and we loved it.

The Breadwinner

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Set in Kabul, this stunning film offered a totally different approach to animation, and a heart-wrenching tale of a young woman’s fight for survival in a war-torn society. To say that it was gripping would be something of an understatement.

American Animals

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Based on a true story and skilfully intercutting actors with real life protagonists, Bart Layton’s film was a little masterpiece that gleefully played with the audience’s point of view to create something rather unique.

Bad Times at the El Royale

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Drew Goddard’s noir tale brought together a brilliant cast in a unique location, and promptly set about pulling the rug from under our feet, again and again. There was a superb Motown soundtrack and a career making performance from Cynthia Erivo.

Wildlife

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Based on a Richard Ford novel, this subtle but powerful slow-burner was the directorial debut of Paul Dano and featured superb performances from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and newcomer, Ed Oxenbould.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The Coen brothers were in exquisite form with this beautifully styled Western, which featured six separate tales of doom and despair, enlivened by a shot of dark humour. But, not for the first (or the last) time, we heard those dreaded words ‘straight to Netflix.’

Roma

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Another Netflix Original (and one that’s hotly tipped for the Oscars), this was Alfonso Cuaron’s lovingly crafted semi-autobiographical tale off his childhood in Mexico, and of the nanny who looked after him and his siblings. It was absolutely extraordinary.

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

I, Tonya

18/02/18

Just when you think  the Oscar race can’t get any tighter, in swaggers I, Tonya, straight out of left field and hits you with a hefty sucker punch, right in the kisser. This noisy, brazen biopic is wonderfully enervating and it’s clear that its claim to be ‘the Good Fellas of figure skating’  isn’t so very wide of the mark. Indeed, the constant jumping from time-frame to time-frame, the fake interviews, the occasional deadpan remarks delivered straight to camera and, above all else, the wonderful classic rock soundtrack – all serve to remind you of Martin Scorcese’s finest movie. But it’s much more than just a pale imitation of that film. There’s so much to admire here, not least Margot Robbie’s incendiary performance in the title role.

Tonya Harding, it seems, had a fight on her hands from her earliest days. Knocked around by her hard-as-nails, chain-smoking momma, LaVona (Alison Janney, in brilliant Oscar-baiting form), beaten up by her ne’er-do-well husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), she manages to battle through, performing manoeuvres on the rink that no other skater has ever dared to try –  but her ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ persona doesn’t stand her in good stead with the judges, who like to see a little more deportment doled out alongside the leaps, twirls and pirouettes.

Of course, we all know why she came to wider attention – through the notoriety of a vicious attack on her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), which left her hospitalised just as they were both preparing to skate in the Olympics. Despite being only tangentially involved in the incident – it was originally devised as a series of poison pen letters by Jeff and then pumped up out of all proportion by Tonya’s so-called ‘bodyguard,’ Shawn – Tonya ends up paying the highest price when Shawn decides to go a bit further with the plan and enlists the aid of some very dodgy people indeed. What follows is so bizarre, it can only be a true story…

Director Craig Gillespie handles the material with an edgy, almost experimental approach, throwing in slow-mo and jump cuts with glee – and the mesmerising skating sequences are so cleverly staged, you literally cannot see the joins. That appears to be Robbie on the screen, skating up a storm, but it can’t really be, can it? Like many other recent biopics, there’s a final sequence of interviews showing the real life protagonists, just so you can fully appreciate how close these characterisations keep to the originals, which is particularly surprising in the case of Paul Walter Hauser’s hilariously off-the-wall performance as the cartoonish Shawn. It’s an eye-opener.

Go and see this riotous, hard-hitting and occasionally hilarious film and enjoy what must qualify as one of the strangest sporting stories in recent history. And as for that rock soundtrack, if you can manage to sit in your seat without twitching and foot-tapping along in accompaniment, then you’re made of sterner stuff than me.

4.9 stars

Philip Caveney

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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18/05/16

War and comedy can make uncomfortable bedfellows; it’s not very often that filmmakers get the mix right, but that’s hardly surprising when your potential laughs are inevitably punctuated by regular doses of death and devastation. Whiskey  Tango Foxtrot is co-written by former news reporter Kim Baker, based on her book The Taliban Shuffle and essentially, it’s used here as a vehicle for the comedy talents of Tina Fey. Though she has a likeable persona, this is a somewhat hit and miss affair, mostly falling short of real humour and failing to imbue the proceedings with any hint of real peril.

When we first meet Kim, she’s forging a safe but humdrum career as a copy editor at a TV news station in New York. The escalating tensions in Afghanistan, however, create opportunities for ‘the unmarried and childless’ to head out to the war zone and ‘raise their profiles.’ Despite being in a long term relationship, Baker accepts the offer and the next thing she knows, she’s based in Kabul (or as the news teams refer to it, the Ka-bubble) trying to make waves as a news presenter. Her main competition comes from the reckless and highly photogenic Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) the only other woman reporter on the scene and someone who has flung herself headlong into the hedonistic lifestyle that reporters follow when they’re not out shooting footage.

Baker’s long-distance relationship soon goes belly-up, but she finds some consolation in the arms of veteran Scottish photographer, Iain McKelpie (Martin Freeman) and meanwhile she’s also come to the attention of Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), a powerful local politician with an eye for Western females. For the first year or so,  Kim does fine, but by the third year audiences back home are tiring of news from the war zone. Only the most dangerous and hair-rising assignments are going to keep her on the screens back in America… but how far is she prepared to go to ensure that happens?

It’s not a terrible film, but neither is it powerful enough or focused enough to hold the attention for very long. More damningly, I don’t feel I really learned anything new about Afghanistan, because everything on the screen was shown from the perspective of a privileged white American, and somehow that didn’t feel like enough. One of these days, Fey is going to find a role that’s worthy of her undoubted talents but this doesn’t really feel like the one to do it for her. This isn’t so much M.A.S.H, as lukewarm spuds.

Maybe the acrostic in the title – WTF – should have acted as a warning.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney